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Scientists fighting COVID-19 are the unlikely heroes of the coronavirus era

Coronavirus scientists are experiencing newfound fame across the globe, as virologists and epidemiologists are now the national faces of the crisis and relied on for the latest information and guidance. Learn more about the public faces of the coronavirus response in Germany, Italy, Greece, and the United States. Plus, learn what it means to “rise to the challenge.”

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  • The unlikely heroes of the coronavirus era

    Hi everyone, Jeff here, and thanks for joining us for Plain English lesson number 260. JR is our producer, hard at work producing two version of every lesson! One for the web site you know, and one for the new one we have under development. Just a few more lessons left doing double duty, JR! Hang in there.

    Coming up today: The virologists and epidemiologists who are now the public face of the coronavirus. After toiling in obscurity for so long, they’re now the national face of the crisis in so many countries. We’ll check in on the public face of the coronavirus response in Germany, Italy, Greece, and the United States. The expression is “rise to the occasion.” And we have a video lesson as well. The video lesson is about how to use “almost since” when you’re talking about when something started. All that is available on the web site at PlainEnglish.com/260.


    Scientists are the stars of the coronavirus show

    The world’s newest hot celebrities aren’t reality TV stars, movie producers, sports stars, populist politicians, Instagram influencers, or anything else that dominated our media world in 2019 and earlier. They are, instead, scientists who have risen to the occasion. They calm our nerves, impart information, and give sage advice in this time of crisis.

    Part lab scientist, part spokesman, part therapist—they wear many hats, but they all insist on not being politicians and not bending to political will. For that, they have been rewarded with the trust of their anxious populations.

    Who are some of these new celebrities? Let’s start in Germany with Christian Drosten, the 48-year-old director of the Institute of Virology at a Berlin hospital. He is an expert on coronaviruses and was front-and-center during the SARS epidemic in 2003. He was on television then, but was frustrated with the way his comments were chopped up and packaged for TV. So he started working with Germany’s public radio network, NDR, on producing a daily podcast where he could frame the message in his own terms.

    It has been a huge hit. The show has been the number-one podcast in Germany almost since its debut. The show has a question-and-answer format, where a science journalist interviews Dr. Drosten and then facilitates a question-and-answer session with members of the public. The format resonates with the audience because Dr. Drosten can answer the kinds of questions that are on people’s minds. In one recent show, he addressed why young, fit people were suffering so much from COVID-19. In other shows, he debunks popular myths about coronavirus cures.

    Dr. Drosten advises the German government on the pandemic, but is not part of the government. In that respect, he is like Dr. Massimo Galli, a professor of infectious diseases in Milan. Dr. Galli swapped his lab coat for a suit jacket and has made frequent appearances on television, helping to keep the public informed and shape behavior. He calls social distancing “the mother of all battles.” He has called Milan a time bomb as it prepares to open up before, in Dr. Galli’s opinion, it is ready. Italy was the first country to have a severe, nationwide outbreak, so Dr. Galli was one of the first of the new breed of celebrity-scientists. He was warning neighboring countries about what was coming when the virus was still new to Italy.

    Some of the new celebrities are part of the official government response. In Greece, where there hasn’t been an intense outbreak, citizens nonetheless tune in every day at 6:00 p.m. to hear Professor Sotirios Tsiodras. The plain-spoken professor usually sticks to the facts, frequently referring to his notes, and dispensing useful advice. He offers the occasional personal message, as well. His empathy and authenticity are what people like about him most.

    In the United States, we have Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The diminutive 79-year-old has about half a century of experience working in public health and built his career studying HIV, AIDS, and other infectious diseases. He has the difficult job of sharing a stage with fellow New Yorker Donald Trump, gently correcting the President’s mistakes, and trying to stay out of the politics. Dr. Fauci has his critics, mostly from Trump’s own party, but is generally seen as a no-nonsense scientist. People turn to Trump for political saber-rattling and entertainment; they turn to Fauci to know what’s really going on. His watch words are, “You stay completely apolitical and non-ideological, and you stick to what it is that you do.”

    Some of the coronavirus celebrities have more than just a scientific knowledge of the disease. Spain’s Dr. Fernando Simón tested positive for coronavirus in March. He is the director of Spain’s health emergency center and gave frequent public comments on the coronavirus and answered anxious citizens’ questions. Britain’s Neil Ferguson, a mathematician who modeled the spread of the outbreak, also tested positive.

    The remarkable thing about these scientist-celebrities is that they worked in labs and government offices, with only occasional media exposure, for so long. Public health is as much messaging as it is health care, so they do have training in media and messaging. They are sometimes on TV and radio when there are outbreaks, such as SARS. Dr. Fauci was the public face of the government’s response to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

    However, this is out of all proportion to what they’ve had to do before. Prior to this, they’d be fighting to get their message across in the media. Now, they are communicating daily with their entire countries.


    This is a long lesson already, so here is a brief update on the new web site. A feature that is sure to be a fan-favorite. Right now, if you want to listen to the program on the web site and read the transcript as you listen, you find the audio player at the top of the page and then you scroll down the page as you read. But many of you like to pause the audio so you can take a closer look at the transcript. And that means you have to scroll all the way up to the top of the page, press pause, and then find your place again.

    No longer. On the new web site, which is going to be released on June 1, 2020, the player will be in a sidebar and it will stay with you as you scroll down the page. So when you want to pause the audio for any reason, there is no need to scroll up and down. That was probably the number-one feature request and we are pleased to offer it on the new site starting June 1. So keep your eye out for that.

    Rise to the occasion

    Today’s expression is to “rise to the occasion.” What does it mean to “rise to the occasion?” This is a tough one, but it means that someone does extremely well in an unexpected situation. We usually use this when someone has an unexpectedly large or important job to do, and he or she does it well.

    Here’s how I used it in today’s lesson. Many scientists have risen to the occasion and served as the public face of the coronavirus challenge. These doctors and scientists have always had important jobs. They are real pros. But their jobs have not entailed speaking to a nation every day. They have not, in the past, been asked to calm the nerves of millions of people; they have not been placed in charge of formulating and delivering difficult messages for an entire nation. That is a big job. It needed to be done because politicians, for as comfortable as they are in public, are not scientists.

    The public wants qualified, well-informed people to be front-and-center in this crisis. So many scientists around the world have risen to the occasion to fill this role. They never expected to be celebrities; they never expected to be on TV every day. But the job needed to be done, so they stepped up and they’ve been doing it. They have risen to the occasion.

    A crisis is often the time where you see people rise to the occasion. I love hearing about average people who rise to the occasion and do something great. There are so many stories about companies that have switched from making clothing, say, to making cloth face masks; or from making machinery to making ventilators; or from making spirits to making hand sanitizer. These businesses were making good and useful products, but their products were never life-saving. It was never a national priority that they continue to make jeans or distill vodka. But now they are working around the clock to produce some essential materials for this crisis. There are many great examples of companies rising to the occasion—and many are providing the materials at cost.

    In American football, the quarterback is the most important player on the field. Most teams have one good quarterback that they invest a lot of time and money in. They also need one or two backup quarterbacks to play just in case the star player gets hurt. One day, the New England Patriots’ quarterback Drew Bledsoe was injured and the backup had to come in for him. The backup quarterback rose to the occasion and played really well—so well, that the backup quarterback got the big job and Patriots traded Drew Bledsoe to another team. The backup’s name was Tom Brady.

    Think about whether you’ve ever had to rise to the occasion. I’ll tell you one example from my life. I was selected to be on a jury back when I lived in New York City. The case involved a woman accused of first-degree assault, which is a serious charge. According to the prosecutors, she had thrown a glass bottle at a store employee in Chinatown after a dispute. We jurors heard the case and went to deliberate. That means, they locked us in a windowless room and told us to decide whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty.

    At first, nobody really wanted to take charge of the discussions. As you might imagine, a New York City jury is comprised of people from all kinds of backgrounds, life experiences. There were deep disagreements among the jurors: some thought for sure she was guilty; others thought that she definitely wasn’t; others thought she probably threw the bottle but that it wasn’t as serious as the prosecutors said. What we needed was someone to take charge of the discussion and see if we could forge a consensus on the charge, so that justice could be done.

    So I decided, this was going to be my time to rise to the occasion. I’m not a lawyer or in any way an expert in criminal court proceedings. But I thought, we need someone to lead these discussions right now. We need someone to rise to the occasion and do the right thing. So that is what I did. And after three days—three days!—of discussions, just the twelve of us in a windowless room, we reached a unanimous verdict in the case, a verdict we all agreed with and thought served the cause of justice in that case.

    And that happens every day. In our system of justice here in the United States, ordinary citizens are requested to serve on juries. And we ask them to leave their day jobs, leave their families, for a few days. And they often rise to the occasion and do their civic duties.

    Quote of the week

    I’m not sure how it is where you live, but Starbucks has closed all its stores in the US. They are now thinking about re-opening their stores for take-out only in many markets. So I thought I’d choose a coffee-related quote for today. This one comes from way back. “What would life be without coffee?” asked King Louis XV of France. “But then,” he said, “what is life even with coffee?”

    “What would life be without coffee?” Pretty miserable! Nothing to look forward to when you wake up. Nothing to help you ease into the workday. Nothing to jolt you back into coherence late in the afternoon when you need it. “But then, what is life even with coffee?” Well…it’s less than it used to be, just now. But I would say, the average person even under quarantine today is better off than the average European king in the 1700s.


    The coffee I’m drinking right now was roasted on May 6. I bought it on May 6. There’s a little coffee roaster about ten minutes away from my house. I went for an early morning walk one day to replenish my coffee and got coffee that was roasted that very morning. My philosophy these days is, treat yourself to little pleasures. We’re denying ourselves so much, but we need little pleasures. And mine is to upgrade my morning coffee game.

    I hope you are all finding little ways to stay happy despite everything that’s going on in the world these days.

    Thanks for making Plain English part of your weekly routine. We are here for you twice a week, every Monday and Thursday. And stay tuned for more news about the new web site, too. See you soon.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

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